Sunday, 14 August 2022

Deaf rugby ace makes England debut

A YOUNG rugby player from Henley has competed in his first match for the England deaf team.

A YOUNG rugby player from Henley has competed in his first match for the England deaf team.

Jake O’Leary, who lives in Harpsden Woods, played at number eight against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park.

The 19-year-old, who plays for the Henley Hawks’ 1st XV, has been deaf in both ears since birth.

He was invited to join the England deaf squad after his birthday in December.

He attended his first training session in Stowe then took part in a couple of warm-up matches before his international debut two weeks ago.

The match was played in front of 650 people and although England lost 18-5, the teenager enjoyed the day.

Jake said: “It was a great experience because working with a team who all have communication difficulties is a massive learning curve.

“It was character-building for me and my communication skills improved hugely.

“What made it for me was the young deaf kids on the sidelines as I want to encourage deaf people to get involved in sport.

“There was a really touching moment afterwards when a little Welsh girl asked me to sign her shirt and said she now wanted to play rugby.”

He plans to continue training with the deaf squad and hopes to compete in its next match, also against Wales, in a few weeks’ time.

Jake has Klippel-Feil syndrome, a condition in which two discs in the neck are fused together.

He also has Sprengel’s shoulder, a complication in which his left shoulder is higher than his right.

He relies on a bone-anchored hearing aid, which transmits sounds directly into his inner ear through a hole drilled in his skull.

It was installed on the right-hand side of his head when he was 12 and is powered by a small battery which he changes every two weeks. Without it, he would barely be able to hear someone shouting at the top of their voice even if they were standing next to him.

The mechanism is detachable and protrudes from his head so he must wear a specially adapted scrum cap whenever he plays rugby.

He designed this several years ago with help from his father Sean, an orthopaedic surgeon who used to play for London Wasps and the England B team.

Jake originally lived in Reading but his family moved to Wargrave when he was a baby and then to Harpsden when he was about 11. His mother Janet is a teaching assistant at the Oratory Prep School in Goring Heath and he has an 11-year-old sister, Caitlyn.

He was diagnosed at three months old and has had regular check-ups with a physiotherapist ever since.

Although he could have surgery to realign his shoulders, he has opted not to do so as he would be unable to play rugby for up to nine months.

He has been advised to abandon the sport because of his condition but refuses to do so.

Jake said: “The physios always tell me I shouldn’t be playing but for some reason that makes me more determined to carry on.

“I don’t want to give up because I love the game and it’s very rewarding to show that nothing is going to hold me back.

“Some people feel they can’t take part in things because they’ve got this or that condition but I want to prove you can do whatever you want.

“I have a shallow shoulder socket so I am more likely to get injured than other people but I’m not prepared to let that get in the way.”

His father encouraged him to try rugby at Henley and he took an instant liking to it.

His game improved while he was a pupil at Moulsford Prep School and he was allowed to play for the year above in his final two years there.

Before his hearing aid was installed, he taught his teammates to give clear instructions that he could lip read.

He said: “There used to be situations where someone would call out to me or the referee would blow the whistle but I wouldn’t hear it and would carry on playing, which was quite funny.

“I was able to hear so much more with the hearing aid. It was a bit of a shock at first but it was worth it to be able to hear what everybody else could.

“Before that, if there was a big social event it was nearly impossible to hear anyone so I would try to guess what people were saying and give vague, open answers.”

When he was 13, he went to Wellington College and became captain of the colts team while also playing for its 1st XV.

He later won a place on Wasps’ elite player development programme and became captain of the England under-16 A team.

He took a break from playing for Henley at this point as he was too busy but returned when he finished at Wellington last summer.

He is now studying two additional A-levels in chemistry and biology at Oxford Tutorial College and hopes to go to university next year to read biochemistry. Jake trains for at least an hour a day as well as studying and says he will consider a career in sport.

He said: “Progressing from school rugby to adult rugby was a major transition but Henley Rugby Club have been very helpful.

“They gave me half a season just to slowly develop and understand the game and now I’ve played a few games for the first team. From the very beginning, the club has been incredibly warm and welcoming.

“There are some guys in the squad who I’ve played with since I was five years old so the relationship between us has grown stronger over time.

“After working with the deaf team, sometimes I do a bit of sign language when I’m playing for Henley and my team-mates ask what I’m doing.”

Mr O’Leary’s family regularly attend fixtures to watch him play.

He said: “They are very proud of me and I’m happy about that. I’m glad they encouraged me to get into sport at an early age. It keeps me out of trouble and has made my life better as it gives me a real focus.

“They understand that it’s my choice to play sport and they would support me whether I chose to carry on or to give it up.

“Mum worries on the sidelines whenever there’s a collision and I stay on the ground but Dad knows the game and understands what’s going on.

“My advice to anyone in my position would be to go and do whatever you want to do. You should always do what makes you happy in life and if that’s rugby or any other sport, just go for it.”

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